Grand Admiral Thrawn arrived when the Star Wars universe needed him most. With the movie series effectively dead after Return of the Jedi, author Timothy Zahn stepped in on assignment from Lucasfilm and its partner Bantam Spectra to come up with a Darth Vader-level character who could rival Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Leia Organa in the post-Empire years, and an adventure that would resuscitate the biggest blockbuster franchise of all time with mere prose. Boy, did he.
The result was 1991’s Heir to the Empire, a mega hit that ranked on the New York Times bestseller list, spurred the entire Star Wars publishing arm, and became a book so essential to the lore that, after Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012 and decanonized the “Expanded Universe” beyond the original and prequel trilogies, Thrawn was reintroduced across mediums. Thrawn used to be a deep cut in the mid-’90s, Star Wars’ “nerdiest” era. But these days he’s a known quantity to the franchise’s book readers (having just ended another run with the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy) and cartoon watchers young and old, having been folded into the parallel original trilogy of Star Wars Rebels by George Lucas’ appointed successor, Dave Filoni.
Thrawn is a big frickin’ deal. So why wasn’t I losing my shit when he got his live-action due for the very first time?
Star Wars fans dating back 10, 20, 30 years would have killed for a Star Wars sequel trilogy focused on Luke, a new apprentice, and the vicious threat of Thrawn. We didn’t get that in J.J. Abrams’ Disney revival (though, in his defense, Lucas wasn’t planning to go there either if he had his way). But you can find dusty forums and Ain’t It Cool News threads full of gushing fans wishing for three decades that someone, anyone, would breathe live-action life into Zahn’s novelistic antagonist.
Filoni, unsurprisingly, realized the dream: In episode 6 of Disney Plus’ Ahsoka, beloved Rebels fighter Sabine finally zips across multiple galaxies to reconnect with not only her old bud Ezra Bridger, but her old nemesis, Grand Admiral Thrawn. Played by Lars Mikkelsen, who voiced the character on Rebels, the new-old version of Thrawn steps out onto the Imperial stage with his sinister smile and plans to wield Night Sister magic. There’s a lot of bad-guy and good-guy scheming going on in Ahsoka, and true to the past, Thrawn seems ahead of it all, ready to make a comeback and sew up plot holes created by The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker. There’s no one better suited to pound away convoluted Star Wars storytelling until it bends back into shape than Thrawn; Zahn wrote him as a true force (lowercase F). Filoni pretty much cleared the bar in adapting him for Rebels. But I can’t help but feel our guy deserved a little more from Ahsoka.
Last we saw Thrawn, he was whisked away through hyperspace to an unknown part of the universe by way of a space whale race known as the purrgils. Unfortunately, the Rebel operation to blast the Grand Admiral out of known space required the sacrifice of wannabe Jedi and nice boy Ezra, who stuck around on the purrgil hijacked ship to make sure Thrawn would really never be seen again. Filoni picks up in
Star Wars: The Sabine Chronicles Ahsoka with competing forces looking for Thrawn and Ezra in a grand race to get to either of them first. And when Thrawn turns up in “Part Six,” he’s given a grand-ish entrance: Director Jennifer Getzinger starts on an enormous Star Destroyer, cuts inside a temple to find a fleet of stormtroopers awaiting command, and then from the back enters an ominous figure who could only be one man.
Thrawn’s first scene is the payoff of over 30 years of fan adoration; a character nearly wiped off the slate gets to be in the streaming-era equivalent of a Star Wars movie! And yet, while the scene reaches for big-screen-worthy scope and the pang of the ultimate threat revealing itself, in execution, it doesn’t quite amount to any of Darth Vader’s iconic moves across the series. For me, as I’ve felt about so much of Ahsoka through this point, the historical momentum of the franchise leaves the potential for stand-alone cinematic drama untapped in favor of getting on with the plot. Instead of fanfare, “Part Six” treated the scene as if Ahsoka was really just Rebels season 5, with yet another appearance by mean ol’ Thrawn.
Maybe pure terror isn’t Thrawn, a strategist who likes to play with his food. Mikkelsen maintains the crisp snap of his take on Thrawn from Rebels, even in live action, and the character has the right kind of tunnel vision: All he wants to do is escape exile and revive the Empire — at all costs. It’s chilling, though not terribly satisfying for those of us who hoped to see an on-screen Thrawn chew up scenery. And maybe it’s years of seeing various actors painted over with blue highlighter in fancasting pics, but Mikkelsen’s Thrawn glow-up really does just look like a coat of face paint and a baggy last-minute Halloween costume. (I guess the Great Mothers of Peridea don’t have a tailor.)
This is absolutely picking nits and the curse of high expectations. But I also feel targeted by Ahsoka in that way: Here is a chapter in Star Wars canon that you never thought you’d see on screen, fully realized. The hype for Thrawn’s return was palpable — just look at the last year of casting rumors and image leaks out of Star Wars Celebration — and the delivery didn’t quite match. Disney Plus can’t quite replicate the energy of a movie theater full of Star Wars dorks primed to have the fires of their imaginations stoked after decades of thinking about what Thrawn could be. Instead we got a Tuesday night mid-season drop. Thrawn seems bigger than that.
In a 2021 interview with Polygon, Zahn said he was likely done telling Thrawn’s story — he had mined every bit of the Grand Admiral’s past with Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Lesser Evil that he possibly could. “I’ve basically told all of Thrawn’s story,” he said. “I’m treading water at this point. But it’s nice warm water!” Still, he was hopeful that if Thrawn were ever to be drawn back into a more “present” Star Wars timeline, perhaps adapted for a movie or TV project, there could be more stories to write.
I’m clinging to that; while fans may have dreamed of seeing Thrawn enter live action, he took shape in the Expanded Universe, and he’ll likely do his best (worst?) work in the pages of Zahn’s novels. Thrawn will always be a big deal, even if there’s only so much time and room for him in the live-action Star Wars universe.